Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. It develops gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. But while tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson’s disease, the disorder also causes stiffness or slowing of movement. Symptoms often begin on one side of the body. As Parkinson’s disease develops the person may show little or no facial expression, and one or both of their arms may not swing when they walk. Speech may become soft, slurred, or stuttering.
They may notice their handwriting becomes small, and when they walk their feet tend to shuffle. Turning takes several extra steps, and initiating walking is more difficult; walking gets easier the more steps taken. In fact, sometimes the person with Parkinson’s disease seems to walk too fast. They may lose their balance easily, and tend to fall backwards.
In Parkinson’s disease, certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain which produce a chemical called dopamine gradually break down or die. When dopamine levels decrease, it causes abnormal brain activity, leading to signs of Parkinson’s disease. Certain genes have been identified that are associated with Parkinson’s disease, but these are uncommon except in rare cases with many family members affected by the condition. Ordinarily, Parkinson’s disease begins in middle or late life, and the risk increases with age. People usually develop the disease around age 60 or older. Parkinson’s disease is estimated to affect nearly 2 percent of those older than age 65, or about 1 million Americans altogether. Although young-onset Parkinson’s disease is recognized it is less common. Similarly, men are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than are women.
The conventional medicine approach to Parkinson’s disease is to use medication that replaces the missing dopamine in the brain, either using a drug that is a precursor to dopamine (L-dopa) or a drug that mimics dopamine in the brain (dopamine agonists). Sometimes drugs that block the breakdown of dopamine are used (COMT inhibitors or MAO inhibitors). There is also a surgical approach to Parkinson’s disease that can be effective in improving the symptoms. In all cases, however, the disease progresses, and eventually these treatments lose their effectiveness. It is estimated that 50 to 80 percent of those with Parkinson’s disease eventually experience dementia, as well.
An important clue to understanding Parkinson’s disease is the Lewy Body. Lewy bodies are abnormal aggregates of proteins that develop inside nerve cells, and are composed largely of the protein alpha-synuclein. There is evidence that Parkinson’s disease may begin in the gut. Inflammatory patterns in the gut appear to trigger the formation of alpha synuclein that not only accumulates in the gut, but travels to the brain along the vagus nerve where it accumulates and induces the destruction of dopamine-producing cells. In this holistic framework, other factors also play a role, including the demise of the energy-producing engines of cells, called mitochondria, hormone imbalances, toxin exposures including heavy metals, herbicides and pesticides, and variations in function of the body’s normal detoxification pathways.
A functional medicine approach to Parkinson’s disease makes a lot of sense. To accomplish this goal the Functional Medicine operating system consists of the Functional Medicine Timeline, The Functional Medicine Matrix, and the Therapeutic Lifestyle Factors (Sleep & Relaxation, Movement & Exercise, Nutrition, Stress, and Relationships). Functional Medicine Matrix, based on a scientific framework known as “systems biology,” allows the practitioner to evaluate imbalances at the cellular level. This helps sort out why the disease has occurred in the first place. By understanding each of these imbalances the patient is empowered to make changes to correct them. Each part of the Matrix is called a “node,” and there are 7 nodes on the Functional Medicine Matrix. You can read about them here: Assimilation, Defense & Repair, Energy, Biotransformation & Elimination, Structural Integrity, Transport, and Communication.